Marinette Marine launches the construction of the first Constellation frigate

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WASHINGTON — A Fincantieri shipyard in Wisconsin will begin construction of its first Constellation-class frigate on Wednesday after a small ceremony, U.S. Navy officials said.

The launch of vessel construction at the Marinette Marine shipyard follows the award of a contract in April 2020 for the vessel program and 28 months of design maturation work – transforming the Italian company’s design for a European FREMM frigate into a US Navy derivative.

“Construction will begin this week far from zero,” Tommy Ross, who serves as assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, told reporters this week.

Rear Admiral Casey Moton, director of the small unmanned combatant program, told reporters that the detailed design was 80 percent complete, which was the Navy’s goal for the start of construction.

Moton said the Navy has taken several steps to reduce risk in the frigate program, such as requiring companies bidding for the program to use an existing ship design as the basis for their proposals. The service also conducted a 16-month design maturation process with five potential competitors.

“That design maturity was probably the most important factor in reducing the risk to production, so we held ourselves to a high standard, and in the end there were even a few places where we decided to continue to to mature the design to meet that high standard. And that was the right thing to do, and I think that’s going to pay dividends in the build,” Moton said.

Design maturity, for example, means there’s a better understanding of what pumps to buy and what widths are required for particular systems, Moton said. This means that Fincantieri can order materials earlier and the company can have everything on hand to keep the pace of construction going.

The company is expected to deliver this first ship, the future Constellation, to the Navy in 2026. The service has already exercised options on the second and third ships of the class.

The service has a stated requirement for 56 small fighters, although its the most recent long-range shipbuilding plan never reaches this fleet size due to retirements of the bulk of littoral combat ships over the next five years, and a construction rate that would see a maximum of two or three frigates built per year.

Previous screenings requested purchase up to four frigates per year to increase the size of the small fighter fleet, which Navy leaders have long said would be increasingly important for future operations.

Building three or four each year would require bringing in a second yard to build Fincantieri’s design – just as General Dynamics Bath Iron Works designed and built the first Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, and HII’s Ingalls Shipbuilding was contracted as second constructor.

In fact, Ingalls and Bath Iron Works are already considering the frigate program and whether it fits into their future workload, as is Austal USA.

But despite a December 2020 plan to buy three frigates in fiscal year 2023 and four a year in fiscal year 2025, requiring short-term selection of a second yard, the Navy has since backed away from its commitment to bring in a second shipyard.

Ross told reporters this week that the first step is to get Marinette Marine’s production line fully running. “As we move forward, we then want to look at how to make sure we have the capacity to meet our requirements. At the moment, I think we are well placed to meet the demands that we will have in the years to come with the shipyard starting work — Fincantieri. But it will be something we want to take a close look at. »

Moton clarified that the current requirement is 20 ships, although the Navy calls for 56 small combatants in its long-range shipbuilding plan and in the Chief of Naval Operations’ recent “Sailing Plan 2022” document.

While the requirement for 20 ships is firm, the rate at which the Navy is building them is not.

“There are several factors at play. Right now the requirement is for a 20-ship class of frigates. The pace at which we will build this class of frigates depends on the measured approach we took at the start [to manage risk in the first couple ships of the class]; it is a function of a balanced approach to high-level constraints; it’s a balanced approach to the whole industry base and how quickly we might need to move to a second builder,” Moton said.

He added that there was no final decision point and that each year the Navy would reconsider the state of its budget as well as the needs and capabilities of the industrial base in determining the number of frigates it would have. plans to buy in the years to come.

Just in case the Navy adds a second construction yard, the contract with Fincantieri includes an option for the service to purchase a technical data package to give to another builder. Moton said the service would not purchase this package sooner than necessary, as Fincantieri will certainly modify the design as it learns the lessons of building the first ships. Waiting until the time of need would ensure that the technical data set is as up-to-date as possible.

Moton spoke of this learning process in terms of years and multiple ships, suggesting the rest of the shipbuilding industry won’t know soon if they’ll be able to join this small combat program.

Even as Fincantieri begins building the lead ship this week, work is already underway on the combat system that will give the ship a mighty punch. Frigate program manager Captain Kevin Smith said work underway at The Forge, a Navy software factory outside College Park, Maryland, will ensure frigates can keep up with the evolving threats without breaking the bank.

The frigate will start with Lockheed Martin’s Aegis Baseline 10 combat system, similar to what will be on the Flight III Arleigh Burke destroyers, which are under construction. Through work at The Forge, Lockheed and other vendors can propose, test and integrate new capabilities that address new threats and could lead to better contract options for the Navy to acquire these capabilities.

The effort relies on the Navy’s work to virtualize Aegis – to take combat system software and completely detach it from hardware so that the full combat suite can be run from a computer-sized server. ‘a suitcase on a shore test site, from an unmanned vessel. or a Navy ship at sea.

Rather than having a cumbersome process of updating a ship’s combat system software by physically going aboard and working with the server racks, as has been the case, Smith said future updates to the frigate’s and other ships’ combat systems would be similar to push software updates. to smartphones.

While progress at The Forge won’t change the way the first frigate is built – server racks will still be installed fairly early in the process, while spaces are still accessible – Ross hopes it will make the update easier. combat system before the ship departs for her first deployment.

“Where we’re getting at is that what we install during shipbuilding are the server racks, and whatever Aegis baseline or whatever is available at the time – if that’s is Baseline 10, fine – but by the time you go out of build, Baseline 10.1 or 10.2 or 10.3 may be available, and then it’s a matter of getting that virtual update out rather than having to reinstall the software,” he said.

“So we’re not there yet, and we may not be there in the first ship, the first build of the frigate, but by the 20th we better be there because it’s is the direction we need to go.”

Megan Eckstein is a naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on US Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported on four geographic fleets and is happiest when recording stories from a ship. Megan is an alumnus of the University of Maryland.

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